Fighting BDS at the U.N.
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Fighting BDS at the U.N.

Conference draws 1,500 people, including many locals, to unlikely venue

The United Nations was the site of an anti-BDS summit at its New York City headquarters on May 31. (Shahar Azran)
The United Nations was the site of an anti-BDS summit at its New York City headquarters on May 31. (Shahar Azran)

BDS — the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that has the economic starvation of Israel as its goal — is not winning. But its hydra-headed presence is unavoidable on college campuses nonetheless.

What’s going on? Why is it happening? Should it be ignored? Can it be stopped? Killed with kindness and candor? Fought with facts?

At an anti-BDS conference held in the United Nation’s General Assembly hall last week — and yes, the irony of holding that meeting in a room that has heard so much anti-Israel venom was not lost — about 1,500 people, many of them high school upperclassmen and college students, listened to speakers talk about ways to combat BDS, and about the climate of many college campuses.

Many of those people were from northern New Jersey. Although each had a different experience and was most moved by different speakers, most seemed to have come away with the same basic messages: Facts are good. Truth is good. Shouting is not a way to convey truth. Relationships matter, particularly if they predate the stressor of political disagreement.

Martha Cohen of Fort Lee and her son, Harry Cohen, who has just finished his freshman year at Drew University, went to the meeting together.

“I think that this” — BDS, and the loathing of Israel and Zionists, which often edges over into the loathing of Jews — “is the challenge of our time, and even people who are well versed in it can learn a lot,” Ms. Cohen said. “That’s what compelled me to go.

“I found that having speakers not only from the United States but also from European countries and South America was really important,” she continued. “It reminded a lot of us that believe it or not, as Americans we are just at the beginning of this, and if we don’t really take on the challenge in a serious manner, we could end up like those other communities.”

She had been chilled by a speaker from Chile, a country whose Palestinian population, the biggest in the world outside the Palestinian territories, is far bigger than the Jewish community. (There are an estimated half a million or so Palestinians in Chile, and an estimated 50,000 or so Jews.) “Most Chileans say they’ve never even met a Jew, but most probably have. They just don’t know it,” she said. That’s because Chilean Jews are afraid to admit their identity. “That means that there is a place in our own hemisphere where people are afraid of identifying themselves as Jews,” Ms. Cohen said.

Many of the speakers talked about history, and how not knowing history makes people dangerously open to its misuse, she said. That plays well with the concept of intersectionality, the new political theory that posits that all oppressive social structures are tied together, and therefore all oppressed people, despite any differences, should make common cause. This often makes for odd bedfellows.

Intersectionality sees Israelis as oppressors, and therefore their antagonists as the oppressed. “If people really knew history, and what really goes on in Arab countries, they wouldn’t believe that argument,” Ms. Cohen said. “It all comes from ignorance. Not everyone who supports BDS is a bad person, but if you don’t know that past — you may think you’re doing good, but you may be doing really bad things.

Martha Cohen with her son, Harry.
Martha Cohen with her son, Harry.

“One of the Europeans talked about how BDS is being presented on ballots in European Union countries as a peace motion. Often people don’t read the details, they just vote for it. They’re voting for peace.

“There is a lesson in that, about words and their power. We can’t assume that people are looking at content or context.”

Not knowing history also affects people’s actions. “Some of the speakers talked about many people not knowing that Israel existed two thousand years ago,” Ms. Cohen said. “If you don’t know, you don’t know.

“And when you’re taught the Holocaust curriculum, where the history starts in the 1930s, you feel awful about what happened to these people, you feel awful about the genocide, but they don’t know why the Jews should have gone to Israel, why Israel was established on what they are told was someone else’s land.

“Ask people where the name Palestine comes from. Nobody realizes that it’s a Roman word, Palestina; the Romans used it when they wanted to remove all Jewish links from the land. It’s a benign question, but one of historical reality.”

A number of speakers, in various ways, made the point that BDS is merely the latest and most creatively redesigned link in a 2,000-year-old chain of anti-Semitic thought. “Someone talked about the importance of the big perspective,” Ms. Cohen said. “Seventy years of relative freedom does not make up for 2,000 years of oppression. We have to realize that we have lived in oppression for most of our history, through dhimmitude and worrying about covering our heads, wearing our stars. Now we have to worry about our future. It doesn’t begin with us and it doesn’t end with us.”

Harry Cohen, 19, who is thinking of majoring in political science and plays Division III baseball at school — he’s a pitcher — went to the meeting, he said, because although there is not much anti-Israel protest at Drew, some of his friends at other schools report that they encounter it.

“A lot of what people say about Israel is just buzzwords,” he said.

He learned from David Sable, the CEO of the advertising giant Young & Rubicam, who spoke at the conference. “He said that peace is really achievable, but on a personal level, not by talking in slogans,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s by becoming friends with someone who is of a different ideology. The way to bring people together is to have an open discussion, where every idea is open to challenge.

“During the last Gaza war, one of my friends put up a picture on Facebook, of a child who had been bombed. He’s not Jewish. I have known him since first grade; he didn’t know who ran Gaza or what Hamas was or why there was a war going on.

“He had posted the picture because he felt so strongly about right and wrong, and he felt so strongly that Israel was wrong. But we talked, and when I started to unpack the issues, he realized that what he had been taught was a lie.”

And then his friend took down the picture.

He thinks it’s important to challenge ideas in class if he thinks they’re wrong, even if it’s unpopular. “I have to bring it up and discuss it.” Yes, it takes courage, but it’s what his parents have taught him to do.

Can it change minds? He took some advice from the conference on that question. “The people who have been taught to hate Israel growing up have that ingrained in them, but the people who are on the fence, who are taught lies or half-truths — if they don’t meet anyone on the other side, then it’s over, even if they are really well-intentioned.” So, he hopes, at least a few of those on-the-fence people will meet Harry Cohen, and move to the other side.

Donna Weintraub with her son Cory.
Donna Weintraub with her son Cory.

Donna Weintraub and her son Cory also went to the meeting. The Weintraubs live in Haworth; Cory, 18, will be a freshman at Vanderbilt in the fall.

Ms. Weintraub, whose family, like the Cohens, is strongly Zionist, most likely would have been drawn to the meeting anyway, but she was propelled by the experiences of her oldest child, Jillian, who is now a senior at the University of Wisconsin.

Jillian Cohen’s first classroom experience at Madison came from a Jewish teacher, Jennifer Loewenstein, who was raised in Israel and made no secret of how evil she thought her birthplace to be. The class was an introduction to the middle east, and the teacher “started the semester by telling the kids the capitals of all the countries, and she said that the capital of Israel is Tel Aviv, and if you write Jerusalem on a paper, it will be marked wrong.

“I, of course, as a concerned parent, called Hillel, and they said that she’s a known issue on campus.”

Dr. Loewenstein also “spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about the Israel/Palestine issue, and little on the rest of the middle east,” Ms. Weintraub remembers her daughter telling her.

The school offered work-arounds to the most tangible problems — an objecting student’s paper could be graded by someone else — but nothing more substantial. Eventually the professor left — not because of her politics — but other problems, anti-Zionist to the point where they seemed anti-Semitic, continued. Students were intimidated to the point where many did not go to hear scholar Deborah Lipstadt talk about the Holocaust because they were afraid to walk into the Hillel building where she was speaking, Ms. Cohen reported.

In response, Jillian Cohen, an activist by nature, formed a pro-Israel group on campus and continued to advocate strongly for Israel.

A childhood friend, who had been in elementary school with Jillian but later went on to a Catholic high school while she went to Northern Valley, ended up in Madison with Jillian, and she imagined him in the class with her. She thought about all the untruths he would learn, and wondered how he would process it. “I am not impressionable, and the kids sitting in the class with me who went to Schechter, or to North Shore Hebrew Academy, aren’t impressionable — but he is impressionable,” Ms. Weintraub recalled her daughter saying.

“What I heard at the meeting that spoke to me is that I didn’t really know what to do with my feelings,” Ms. Weintraub said. “I feel like our message to Jewish students — and sometimes it’s the only message they get — is that there is a BDS movement, and that we are fighting it.”

The pro-BDS forces are good at what they do, and we have to get better, she said. “They said something, we come out against it. They’re proactive, we are reactive. Their visuals are strong, ours are staid. That’s got to change.”

Cory Weintraub — who is a twin; his brother, Jamie, will join their older sister in Wisconsin — also feels that he learned from the meeting.

From left, JCRC director Laura Fein of Teaneck, Dr. Leonard and Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, and Melanie Gorelick of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. All were at the U.N. meeting.
From left, JCRC director Laura Fein of Teaneck, Dr. Leonard and Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, and Melanie Gorelick of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. All were at the U.N. meeting.

“The most important thing is how to combat demonizing claims and false information,” he said. “On college campuses, BDS is not an intellectual battle. It is a battle of emotions. The facts are clear, but a lot of people who support BDS do not really care about the validity of what they are talking about. So if you are in a situation where you are confronted on your views, rather than screaming back or provoking someone more, you should try to calm the situation and try to level with the person rather than being adversarial.”

And facts are useful things, he added.

He also was moved by one of the Palestinians who spoke at the conference. Mosab Hassan Yousef, the “Green Prince,” is the son of a Hamas leader but worked undercover for Mossad for many years, in search of peace and justice. “His message was that BDS doesn’t help anyone,” Mr. Weintraub said. “Not the Palestinian cause, not the Israeli cause. It is not building bridges to peace.

The meeting was not an official U.N. function; Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, used his ability as the representative of a U.N. member state to reserve the room.

“I think that the fact that we were having a pro-Israel event at the United Nations, which has such a long and ongoing history of seeking out Israel for condemnation, was very powerful,” Laura Fein of Teaneck, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said.

Many speakers, including not only the obvious and politically polarizing ones, such as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the group by satellite, but also more unexpected ones, such as Young & Rubicam’s CEO, said that although BDS isn’t harming Israel’s economy, “the real concern is that it is having a psychological effect,” Ms. Fein said. Quoting Mr. Sable, who was quoting the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “the third intifada is based on a strategy of making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure,” she said.

“The real threat is that in the United States, we are seeing that more and more Jewish groups and individuals are internalizing the demonization of Israel.” It’s as if the view of Israel as a moral outlier, a unique force for evil, “is true, and based on truth.”

The way to fight that untruth is with truth, but also to do it in a “more strategic and coordinated movement,” she said.

Much of the discussion on intersectionality made obvious but necessary points, she said. The idea that parts of the U.S. GLBT community or some American feminists, because they often are victims of oppression, would ally themselves with such countries as Saudi Arabia, “is preposterous,” she said. “And it is a sad state of affairs if your whole identity comes from being oppressed, rather than claiming a positive identity.

“That’s what is so inspiring about Israel. In spite of living in a desert, they create water technology that they’re exporting. When they were under attack, they became a major technological force, not just in military technology but overall. They needed to come up with solutions for the medical problems that came with the situation, so now they’re leaders in trauma medicine. They took something positive out of what they have to deal with. We hope that we can inspire teens to be inspired by Israel’s example, not to be deterred by the challenge but to make the best of it.”

Right now, the challenge is the sophisticated organizing Israel’s opponents have been doing on campus.

“You see a creative stunt that one college group has come up with, and then you see it on other campuses,” Ms. Fein said. She’s talking about the dramatic strategies pro-BDS groups use to dramatize the situation in Israel. “Stunts like giving students eviction notices, or building what they call the Israeli apartheid wall on campus. It’s coordinated through groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.

“The Jewish community is great at organizing, but we have so darned many organizations, and they are all doing the same kinds of things on a small scale all over the place, but there isn’t the sense of any one movement,” she said.

The JCRC that she heads, and the federation of which it is a part, hopes to fight back against campus anti-Zionism and its frequent companion, anti-Semitism, by inviting 300 high school students to a program set for March 5, 2017. Although the meeting will offer students techniques to meet the challenge, “we are imaging this conference as not only about defending yourself but also as creating a spark of interest that we hope will encourage students to think more deeply.

“We hope to give them tools so they can educate themselves more deeply on the reality of what’s happening.”

There will be more publicity about the conference as it draws closer, but if you want to learn more now, email Ms. Fein at lorif@jfnnj.org.

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